Driving while impaired (DWI) is a grave and persistent high-risk behavior. Previous work demonstrated that DWI recidivists had attenuated cortisol reactivity compared to non-DWI drivers. This suggests that cortisol is a neurobiological marker of high-risk driving. The present study tested the hypothesis that this initial finding would extend to first-time DWI (fDWI) offenders compared to non-DWI drivers. Male fDWI offenders (n = 139) and non-DWI drivers (n = 31) were exposed to a stress task, and their salivary cortisol activity (total output and reactivity) was measured. Participants also completed questionnaires on sensation seeking, impulsivity, substance use, and engagement in risky and criminal behaviors. As hypothesized, fDWI offenders, compared to non-DWI drivers, had lower cortisol reactivity; fDWI offenders also showed lower total output. In addition, cortisol activity was the most important predictor of group membership, after accounting for alcohol misuse patterns and consequences and other personality and problem behavior characteristics. The findings indicate that attenuated cortisol activity is an independent factor associated with DWI offending risk at an earlier stage in the DWI trajectory than previously detected.
Keywords: cortisol; impaired driving; neurobiological marker.